Once you decide to build a startup with your amazing co-founders, you have picked a starting point by selecting a problem to solve, not an idea now; your sole job is to get to product-market fit.
If you are currently overwhelmed by the demand and find yourself struggling to keep up, and perhaps despite having a not so great product, your customers keep using it over time, expand their use over time, and keep referring other customers to your product, then congratulations you have product market fit!
The first step in getting to product-market fit is to accept that you currently do not have product-market fit. Admitting that your default mode is that you do not have product-market fit is essential to avoid working hard and getting nowhere.
Most companies do not ever get to that point because they get busy with the wrong things. Here is a non-exhaustive list of activities that will keep you occupied with a fictional sense of progress while not helping you get to product-market fit:
- Working Hard
- Business Model Canvas
- Growth Hacking
- Financial Modeling
- Startup competitions
- Building software that scales
- Hiring employees
- Spending money outside of founders food and rent
- Meeting investors*
(*valid to get the money that pays rent, food, and internet while you figure it out)
Here the only three activities that I know are more likely to get you to product-market fit:
- Discovering pain from conversations with potential customers
- Design, build and run experiments to observe your customer’s behavior.
- Kill ideas or experiments that did not work.
Discovering pain from conversations with potential customers
After you pick a problem to solve, you need to speak with potential customers. Who you talk to is just as important as what you ask.
Who to talk to can be part of the experiment, and you can create a hypothesis around the level of pain and frequency of pain and optimize for who is more likely to have the most pain, who is likely to live that pain most frequently, and who is more likely to want to do something to solve that pain right now.
There are at roughly five outcomes from each conversation with each prospect:
- The pain you imagined does not exist.
- The pain exists but the prospect does not know they have a pain.
- The pain exists and the prospect has identified the pain, but they are not going to do anything about it right now (or ever).
- The pain exists, the prospect has identified the pain exists, and they have quantified the cost of the pain, but they are not going to do anything about it right now (or ever).
- The pain exists, the prospect has identified the pain exists, they have quantified the cost of the pain, and they are determined on doing something about it, with or without you. Doing nothing is not an option for them.
You want to get to the people that are in option #5, they have identified and quantified their pain and they will do something about it right now. In most cases the pain does not exist (number 1) and at best they know it exists but it is not so pressing that they are going to do something about it right now.
At this stage, what is essential is not to push your prospect to identifying their pain, quantifying their pain, and pressuring them to do something about it right now. Instead, we are discovering, without pitching, if the prospect has that pain or not, we decide, not the customer.
Every “no” that you get saves you weeks, months, or years from painfully building something no one wants, so discovering that 99 people do not have that pain and one does, is just as valuable. It is also useful to find out that 0 out of 100 people do not have that pain. You just saved yourself years of hard work and not getting to product-market-fit.
With that in mind, start your conversations, and I highly encourage you to buy The Mom Test book and follow it. But in short; here’s their takeaway:
- Talk about their life instead of your idea.
- Ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future.
- Talk less and listen more.
If prospects start talking about features or product ideas, pivot away from that and refocus the conversation so you can get more information about past behavior, not a wishlist of features.
Design, build and run experiments to observe your customer’s behavior.
How to design and build and experiment (more detail here)
- With the problem defined, think of the result of the solution.
- Pick a launch date; the only variable that does not change is time.
- Then observe behavior. Hopefully, you can follow your user while they use it or at very least looking at user behavior inside your app or product.
Kill ideas or experiments that did not work.
Do not let your ego get in the way of your success. You are likely wrong about your product idea and product vision, and that is OK. Think about it more like a science experiment, where a hypothesis can be proven true or false, and either one moves science forward. Your awesomeness as a founder is in your process and execution at getting to product-market-fit, not if your hypothesis was proven correct.